If you own an Amazon Echo, you probably know its strange secret: The device records a lot of what you say. Deep inside that dark tower, Echo keeps a vast trove of recordings. Your voice is preserved. Your friends’ voices are preserved. Anyone who has ever been to your house and said, “Alexa!” has contributed to its great library of human sound.
On the upside, this amazing technology puts instant information a voice command away. Most people have no idea that you can do much more than get the latest weather or listen to your favorite tunes. Click here for a list of Alexa commands you’re probably not using but should.
The downside is that Amazon stores a recording of every voice command you’ve issued to Alexa — not just in the device itself, but on Amazon’s servers.
Many owners feel a little weird about these voice recordings. What does Amazon plan to do with them? Can someone break into Alexa and hack my voice? Can law enforcement access my
recordings? Is Amazon going to use these sound files for some dastardly plan?
Why Amazon stores your voice
First, let’s address why the device stores your voice in the first place. In brief, Alexa wants to obey your every command, but no matter how lifelike “she” may be, you are still a human being talking to a machine, which has no intuition.
For the software to learn, it must adapt to your style of speaking. Some people mumble; others have thick accents. Gradually, Echo gets better at understanding you.
Is Amazon Echo always listening?
The short answer is yes. Alexa is activated when it detects one of its wake words: “Alexa,” “Amazon,” “Computer” or “Echo.” You know the device is ready for a command when the outer ring at the top glows blue.
Amazon says it records and stores the wake word and your command, along with a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word. So if you’ve having a conversation and say something like, “I love that song! Let’s listen to it. Alexa, play the Coldplay song, ‘Viva La Vida,’” Alexa may keep the words “listen to it.”
How to listen to these recordings
I’m guessing most people don’t know this, but — surprise! — you can listen to every command you’ve ever given your Echo with the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet.
When I did, I was surprised to learn that some of my recordings had nothing to do with commands. There I was talking on my phone about the old studios I was selling. Alexa also recorded portions of a presidential debate. I am not sure why my real estate call was recorded, but one of the candidates almost said the word “Alexa.”
If you’d like to review your old recordings, open the Alexa app, tap on the Settings menu and then tap on History. Given the hundreds or thousands of commands most Echo users accumulate, you’ll find a huge catalog of your requests. Select the recording you’d like to review and tap the Play icon to listen to it.
How to delete recordings
If it creeps you out that your requests and other things you may have said have been stored in a database, you can delete them. Here’s how:
* Open the Alexa app and go into Settings.
* Select History and you’ll see a list of all the entries.
* Select an entry and tap the Delete button.
But what if you want to delete all your recordings? Do you have to remove each one manually? That could take days!
Amazon lets you remove everything with one click. Just visit the “Manage Your Content and Devices” at www.amazon.com/mycd. But keep in mind Amazon’s warning that “deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience.”
How to keep your Echo from listening
The gravity of being recorded constantly was brought to light in Arkansas last year when a man named James Bates was charged with the 2015 murder of a man named Victor Collins, and Amazon was served a warrant requesting the audio files from Bates’ Echo.
Amazon fought back, arguing that compliance with such a warrant could violate consumers' privacy rights. But the company ultimately handed over the audio files when Bates consented to have the police review the Echo’s data. We still don’t know how Amazon would have defended itself in its fight to protect its customers’ data. Click here for additional details about the murder case and Amazon’s actions.
If you want to prevent Echo from listening to you, you can turn off the microphone with the on/off button on the top of the device. When the button is red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, just press the button again.
Muting the mic stops Echo from listening, but it also defeats its purpose. Yes, Echo provides pretty good sound quality, especially for a Bluetooth speaker, but it can’t take commands if the mic is turned off.
But sometimes, no matter how much you love your Echo, it’s good to allow yourself a bit of privacy. Alexa is great to have around, but sometimes three’s a crowd. Just for laughs, click here to see how one man turned Alexa into a talking skull.
What other secrets are your devices harboring? Be sure to listen to or download my national radio show’s podcasts, or click here to find them on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.
Copyright 2017, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved. Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.